Johann van Graan has declined to shed any light on the strong rumours that he is being offered another new contract extension with Munster.
The 41-year-old South African joined the province in November 2017 to fill the void left by Rassie Erasmus’ return to his homeland and after initially signing a contract as head coach until June 2020, in April 2019 van Graan extended his contract for a further two years until the end of this season.
Van Graan joined the province from his role as Springboks forward coach, where he played a key role in developing the forwards and attack for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, when South Africa finished third. In 2009 and 2010 he helped the Bulls win the Super Rugby title, as the forwards and attack coach.
“I’m not going to speculate over the media about my contract. Obviously, I’m in the last season of my contract and my full focus is on the season ahead. I’m really enjoying my time at Munster, really enjoying the club and am just focused on the week ahead,” he said from the squad’s high performance centre in the University of Limerick today.
“When the time is right for contract talks, that will take place in the background. My job, as well as the coaches and the players, is to focus on the first game of a really exciting season ahead. A really challenging season and that’s where all my focus is currently.”
After three and a half seasons at the helm, van Graan will embark upon his fourth full season when Munster welcome back supporters for the first of back-to-back United Rugby Championship matches against South African opponents the Cell C Sharks at Thomond Park on Saturday (kick-off 7.35pm).
“I’ve been here a few years, an experience that I’ve enjoyed. We have a lot of stability here at Munster, something that we haven’t had for a while. We look back at last season only, each season follows onto a new one and we reviewed that.
"We won 80 per cent of our games, we won 10 out of 12 away games and 13 games at home. The disappointing thing was losing to Leinster in that final and it will take some doing to get to a final again, and we lost to Toulouse, the eventual champions, in the Champions Cup.
“So if we can get to that 80 per cent mark again, which if you look in world sport is a pretty good achievement, I guess the next step for us is to go and win a final. But that’s a long way from our minds.”
Conor Murray and Tadhg Beirne are in their second week of training after their delayed return following Lions duty but won't feature for a few weeks yet.
“We won’t rush them back, both from a mental and physical side - we’ll look after them very well. They won’t be playing in the next week or two. All the Irish internationals from June and July will be available in the coming weeks. We’ll take that on an individual basis, so everybody is available but not everybody might play on the weekend. We’ll see how the week goes.”
Chris Farrell (abdomen), Jason Jenkins (shoulder) and Kevin O'Byrne (leg) are all continuing to rehab while prop Roman Salanoa is also unavailable this week due to a knee issue.
Encouragingly, as with John Hodnett, the Springboks' World Cup winning lock RG Snyman is increasing his training load this week as he nears a return for what will be akin to a new signing after his first campaign was restricted to just seven minutes when suffering a serious knee injury on his debut against Leinster in August last year.
“RG is doing really well in his rehab and then on the training pitch he is increasing loads and he is taking part in team sessions now so when he is ready to play we will pick him,” said van Graan.
Munster completed their pre-season preparations with a 31-19 win away to Exeter last Saturday week. This followed the cancellation of a scheduled friendly at home to Bath, which was replaced by a 60-minute match between 'Munster Red' and 'Munster Grey' that featured both the return of Simon Zebo, the province's all-time record try scorer, and a restricted crowd of 2,000 supporters at Thomond Park.
Saturday’s game against the Sharks marks the return of spectators in “substantial numbers” to Thomond Park for the first time since February 2020, when all season ticket holders and 10-year ticket holders will be accommodated. Tickets for this game, and Munster’s second match a week later against the Stormers at Thomond Park, remain on sale.
“We can’t wait to have our fans back for a proper match,” admitted van Graan. “In the red versus grey game we had a few thousand supporters in and just the noise was incredible and just when both teams ran on to the field to actually experience it, the away game at Exeter was brilliant too, to have around 10,000 people in.
“And I believe from whatever capacity we have at the weekend the tickets will go quickly in the next few days. We love to play at Thomond Park and we can’t wait to play in front of our supporters, and it will be great for the opposition as well to have the whole Thomond Park experience.”